Excerpts From Supreme Court's School Voucher Decision - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

Excerpts From Supreme Court's School Voucher Decision

Excerpts from the Supreme Court's decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, Hannah Perkins School v. Simmons-Harris and Taylor v. Simmons-Harris, on Thursday:

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"There is no dispute that the program challenged here was enacted for the valid secular purpose of providing educational assistance to poor children in a demonstrably failing public school system. Thus, the question presented is whether the Ohio program nonetheless has the forbidden 'effect' of advancing or inhibiting religion. To answer that question, our decisions have drawn a consistent distinction between government programs that provide aid directly to religious schools ... and programs of true private choice, in which government aid reaches religious schools only as a result of the genuine and independent choices of private individuals ... While our jurisprudence with respect to the constitutionality of direct aid programs has 'changed significantly' over the past two decades ... our jurisprudence with respect to true private choice programs has remained consistent and unbroken. Three times we have confronted Establishment Clause challenges to neutral government programs that provide aid directly to a broad class of individuals, who, in turn, direct the aid to religious schools or institutions of their own choosing. Three times we have rejected such challenges." - Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the Court.

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"We believe that the program challenged here is a program of true private choice, consistent with (previous cases) Mueller, Witters, and Zobrest, and thus constitutional. As was true in those cases, the Ohio program is neutral in all respects toward religion. It is part of a general and multifaceted undertaking by the State of Ohio to provide educational opportunities to the children of a failed school district. It confers educational assistance directly to a broad class of individuals defined without reference to religion, i.e., any parent of a school-age child who resides in the Cleveland City School District. The program permits the participation of all schools within the district, religious or nonreligious. Adjacent public schools also may participate and have a financial incentive to do so. Program benefits are available to participating families on neutral terms, with no reference to religion. The only preference stated anywhere in the program is a preference for low-income families, who receive greater assistance and are given priority for admission at participating schools." - Rehnquist.

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" ... The voluntary character of the private choice to prefer a parochial education over an education in the public school system seems to me quite irrelevant to the question whether the government's choice to pay for religious indoctrination is constitutionally permissible. Today, however, the Court seems to have decided that the mere fact that a family that cannot afford a private education wants its children educated in a parochial school is a sufficient justification for this use of public funds. ... I am convinced that the Court 's decision is profoundly misguided. Admittedly, in reaching that conclusion I have been influenced by my understanding of the impact of religious strife on the decisions of our forbears to migrate to this continent, and on the decisions of neighbors in the Balkans, Northern Ireland, and the Middle East to mistrust one another. Whenever we remove a brick from the wall that was designed to separate religion and government, we increase the risk of religious strife and weaken the foundation of our democracy." - Justice John Paul Stevens, dissenting.

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"The Court's majority holds that the Establishment Clause is no bar to Ohio's payment of tuition at private religious elementary and middle schools under a scheme that systematically provides tax money to support the schools' religious missions. The occasion for the legislation thus upheld is the condition of public education in the city of Cleveland. The record indicates that the schools are failing to serve their objective, and the vouchers in issue here are said to be needed to provide adequate alternatives to them. If there were an excuse for giving shortshrift to the Establishment Clause, it would probably apply here. But there is no excuse. Constitutional limitations are placed on government to preserve constitutional values in hard cases, like these. Constitutional lines have to be drawn, and on one side of every one of them is an otherwise sympathetic case that provokes impatience with the Constitution and with the line. But constitutional lines are the price of constitutional government."' - Justice David Souter, dissenting.

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"The First Amendment begins with a prohibition, that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,' and a guarantee, that the government shall not prohibit 'the free exercise thereof.' These Clauses embody an understanding, reached in the 17th century after decades of religious war, that liberty and social stability demand a religious tolerance that respects the religious views of all citizens, permits those citizens to 'worship God in their own way,' and allows all families to 'teach their children and to form their characters' as they wish. ... The Clauses reflect the Framers' vision of an American Nation free of the religious strife that had long plagued the nations of Europe. ... Whatever the Framers might have thought about particular 18th century school funding practices, they undeniably intended an interpretation of the Religion Clauses that would implement this basic First Amendment objective." - Justice Stephen Breyer, dissenting.

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"There are no 'financial incentives' that 'skew' the program toward religious schools. ... Such incentives 'are 3/8 not present ... the aid is allocated on the basis of neutral, secular criteria that neither favor nor disfavor religion, and is made available to both religious and secular beneficiaries on a nondiscriminatory basis.' ... The program here in fact creates financial disincentives for religious schools, with private schools receiving only half the government assistance given to community schools and one-third the assistance given to magnet schools. Adjacent public schools, should any choose to accept program students, are also eligible to receive two to three times the state funding of a private religious school. Families too have a financial disincentive to choose a private religious school over other schools. Parents that choose to participate in the scholarship program and then to enroll their children in a private school -- religious or nonreligious -- must co-pay a portion of the school's tuition. Families that choose a community school, magnet school, or traditional public school pay nothing. Although such features of the program are not necessary to its constitutionality, they clearly dispel the claim that the program 'creates ... financial incentives 3/8 for parents to choose a sectarian school."' - Rehnquist.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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